Admit it, Blair: Britain is no better than Belize or Belarus
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. It was frankly a bit of a miracle, too. Yesterday a sweltering sun rose on Prescott’s Britain, and I suppose we should all be grateful that we woke up at all. Not only is Two Jags in charge of our roads: for the next two weeks – or for however long Blair is away – the former Cunard waiter is in charge of our Middle East policy, and, which I think you will agree is truly terrifying, Prescott’s porky thumb is poised over the British nuclear button.
Prescott is having his annual bash at supreme power and, in honour of his accession, I thought I would make a pilgrimage to the place that is at the heart of his troubles. Indeed, it is the one building that sums up all the pretensions and deceptions of this Government.
For the first time in more than five years, I went to North Greenwich. I got out of the Tube, and once again I saw the vast parabola of our great national tent, our marquee de sad, its silhouette figuratively soaring from ludicrous hype to bitter disappointment.
Except this time, of course, there was no one there, or no one except a few security guards and the odd desultory builder. There hasn’t been anyone there since it closed, amid shame and ignominy, on December 31, 2000. Never mind Prescott’s Stetsons and the embarrassing hand-tooled cowboy boots and the undeclared stays at the billionaire’s ranch. To understand why Labour is in such difficulties about casinos, you have to remember the disaster of the Dome.
Just before the big top opened, Tony Blair declared that it was going to be a “triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. Well, it was a triumph of spin over substance, and a very considerable floperoo. Instead of celebrating any aspect of British history or achievement or civilisation, the Government produced a cultural nullity, a politically correct void inside a vacuum inside a huge New Labour inanition.
The climax, I seem to recall, was a mystifying mime show, with men on stilts acting the part of large orange bogeys. The “experience” cost the thick end of a billion, drew half the visitors expected and, even after it closed, has been costing the taxpayer about a million a month. The only way to rescue the project – and so save New Labour face – was to claim that it was part of a big redevelopment project for the Greenwich peninsula, a particularly ill-favoured patch of soil that had previously hosted a gasworks.
Blair and Prescott cast around for a solution and, in the summer of 2002, Prezza had his first meeting with Philip Anschutz. Wonderful news – this charming and delightful American had a plan. He took the Dome off the Government’s hands; he even paid for it, and he and his allies began to produce fantastic mock-ups of how Greenwich might look.
You can see them yourself, just by the Dome. There are marinas and parks and schools and upscale flats and social housing. There are a total of 25,000 new homes envisaged, and 10,000 jobs, and 360,000 square feet of new retail areas – and yet, in the five years since the Dome closed, not one has been started.
Why? Because it is the plans for Anschutz’s Dome entertainment complex that generate the life and the jobs in Greenwich; and at the heart of the Dome there is still a void and a hole and a great quivering question mark. Anschutz needs one thing to make sense of his project. From the beginning, Prescott and Blair can have been in no doubt what it was.
This guy makes money from the drug of optimism. People sit in serried rows at his Las Vegas machines, their bottoms almost welded to their chairs, robotically pulling the levers. Every time they make the mistake of believing they can win, they give a little more to the casino, and Anschutz knows that, unless he is able to trade on that central delusion, it is much more difficult to make the Dome pay. Without gambling, the hotel is non-viable, and the 23,000-seat theatre less easy to fill.
Blair and Prescott have understood this reality from the beginning. The Americans have left them in no doubt. That is why the British Government has moved heaven and earth to legalise US-style super-casinos in this country. That is the reason – and that is the only reason – why we had the Gambling Act and that is why Prescott is now so desperate, so eye-poppingly hair-pullingly desperate, to get a super-casino in Greenwich. Forget about Blackpool or the claims of other, poorer cities.
Under the pressure of public disapproval, Labour has been forced to reduce the number of super-casinos to one, and it must must must go to the Dome; or else the deal could falter.
What a sordid and unbelievable spectacle. The Government has changed the laws on gambling in this country to salve its embarrassment over the Dome, and to give Anschutz a sweet enough prize.
It’s not so much that I object to the gambling in itself, though there is plenty of evidence that people find it hard to cope with the drug. Anyone who has been to Las Vegas or Surfer’s Paradise will testify that these are not sophisticated casinos. There are no James Bond-style tuxedos and girls draping themselves over the back of your chair; just chinking avenues of self-delusion.
Nor do I accuse Prescott or Blair of any personal corruption. Of course they are not benefiting in any way, apart from the boots and the hat. They are doing what they think is the best thing for Greenwich and the country.
It’s just the pretence that drives me mad, the pretence that Prescott has had no hand in steering the super-casino to the Dome; the pretence that Anschutz should invite Prescott to his ranch for any other reason; the pretence that there is no connection between saving the Dome and permitting super-casinos.
Of course we expect governments to change their laws to suit the needs of foreign billionaires. I am sure it happens everywhere from Belize to Belarus. It would just be nice if they were honest, and admitted that it now happens in Britain, too.